Get Spiritual to Lose Weight?

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on May 26, 2003
5 min read

"My body is not a garbage disposal, but a gift from God," says Melinda Chrysler. Since joining the Bible-based, weight loss movement known as Weigh Down, Chrysler has lost 69 pounds. "It's just awesome."

Chrysler, who had never tried any other weight loss regimen, credits the program -- which consists of Bible study, weekly meetings, and a video -- with her success, saying that through Weigh Down, she has learned to "find her hunger."

"Hunger is when your stomach growls," she says, "not when it's 2 in the morning and a cup of coffee and a Milky Way sound good. Weigh Down has taught me how to get in tune with my body, to eat only when I'm hungry, and to stop when I'm satisfied -- not gorged, but satisfied."

Nothing is prohibited on this faith-based eating plan, says Chrysler. "I've had ice cream, cake, and cookies, but I see them now as a gift from God, not a 'gotta have.'"

The Weigh Down diet may be spiritually based, but it was also established on sound nutritional guidelines, says controversial founder Gwen Shamblin, MS, RD. The author of The Weigh Down Diet and Rise Above, Shamblin has faced criticism both for her religious views and for the finances of her church-based diet program. Nonetheless, hundreds of thousands of people have read her books and thousands more participate in her programs. Shamblin, who herself struggled with weight problems when she was younger, began developing her ideas by following her thin friends around for 48 hours, watching what they ate. She realized that there was no magic bullet -- they were simply eating less than she was, and what was more important, not feeling deprived.

"My eyes were bigger than my stomach," she says now. "We're a greedy people. We indulge ourselves. God gives us food, but we want more."

Diets, pills, exercise, stomach stapling, liposuction -- these don't work, claims Shamblin, because we remain obsessed with food. "When you diet," she explains, "you're constantly thinking about food -- reading labels, comparing diets, planning what you're going to eat, depriving yourself of the foods you really want. What that does is make you more lustful."

In the seminars that have sprung up all over the United States (as well as in 70 other countries), participants are taught that the only time they should be thinking about food is when their stomach growls. "We teach people what hunger is from a physiological standpoint," says Shamblin.

Melinda Chrysler recalls that she was "astounded" to find that it took a full day and a half before she really felt hungry.

"What most people are feeling when they say they're hungry," says Shamblin, "is 'head hunger,' not 'real' hunger."

In addition to eating less frequently, Shamblin's program stresses eating smaller amounts. "God has programmed exactly how much you should be eating," she says. "I never measure." Shamblin also says that eating what you want is OK, too. "Your body will tell you what you need."

What if your body tells you it needs six pieces of pizza? It won't, says Shamblin. "If you eat only when your stomach begins to growl, if you eat slowly, and if you sip [a noncaloric beverage] between bites, you'll know when you've had enough."

Obviously, says Shamblin, Bible study or prayer alone are not going to melt away the pounds. But turning to faith does mean that you're no longer turning to food. "We're all religious in one way or another," she says. "We all bow down to something, whether it's food or money or our family or our job. We need to think about what we're bowing down to. Why bow down to food? Food can rob you of your clothing, your self-esteem, your health. It's a false comfort. That pizza won't save you, that chocolate cake won't love you back."

The correlation between religion and weight loss is not as far-fetched as some might believe, says Howard Bezoza, medical director for Physicians for Complementary Medicine in New York.

"Many people feel that there's a dearth of spirituality in their lives today," he says. This sense of something lacking can lead to low-grade depression, which in turn can express itself in negative behaviors such as overeating.

"Prayer can promote the relaxation response," says Bezoza, "and that can affect a number of nervous system actions such as blood pressure, intestinal motility, and hunger."

Bruce D. Schneider, PhD, LCSW, also sees many clients who are trying to lose weight. "They tell me they're too heavy, and my response is, 'Too heavy for what?'"

"Our bodies respond to our thoughts literally, so when we 'lose' weight, we unconsciously program ourselves to 'find' it again," says Schneider, founder of the Institute for Professional Empowerment Coaching and author of Relax, You're Already Perfect. "So if you desire, plan to 'reduce' your weight.'"

Spirituality can be used not only in conjunction with a weight-reduction plan but also as a way to help us accept who we are at whatever weight we are, Schneider believes. And while there is certainly a place for spirituality in our lives, it need not take the form of organized religion. Meditation, says Schneider, is one alternative.

"A regular practice of meditation allows you to remember yourself as a spiritual being experiencing the physical world, perfectly," he says. "You'll come to know that what you perceive as personal flaws are actually unique characteristics that allow you to experience this physical world differently than any other soul. When you remember your true nature, you realize that you needn't change to conform to someone else's image or idea of what you should look like. You'll develop an inner sense of peace."

Originally published Feb. 1, 2000.
Medically updated May 26, 2003.